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Rome Final - Nadal vs Djokovic
Match analysis, Nadal's short point dominance, Świątek defenestrates Plíšková
🚨 Note from Matt: This was the last free issue of Sunday/Monday match analysis. If you’d like to keep getting them, you can subscribe below. The Racquet goes out twice a week: a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) match analysis piece every Sunday for final’s.🚨
Świątek d Plíšková: 6-0, 6-0
I wanted to write a proper piece about Iga Świątek in her final against Karolína Plíšková today, but Świątek ended up putting in one of the most one-sided thrashings in a big final I’ve seen in years, which meant there was very little to actually write about.
51 points won by Świątek
13 points won by Plíšková
Plíšková really didn’t show up today, but in truth this is a terrible matchup for her on clay. I talk about this often, but the shape of Świątek’s shots is so different to many of her flatter-hitting, more linear opponents. She has spin rates & net clearances that are made for this surface, enabling an awesome array of high margin offence & defence. She shares this trait with her idol, Nadal, conveniently the other winner today.
Świątek goes into Roland Garros as one of, if not the, favourite.
Nadal d Djokovic: 7-5, 1-6, 6-3
This matchup is as close to a chess match as it gets in tennis. With 56 matches of history informing all sorts of attempts at strategic supremacy over one another.
Today’s match was split into three parts.
Part 1: Nadal finishes set 1 strong, 1st serve and forehand supremacy - Nadal winning.
Part 2: Djokovic wins his forehand to Nadal backhand battle, & Nadal serve and depth dips, set 2 and first few of games of set 3 - Djokovic winning.
Part 3: Nadal rides his luck and then reestablishes 1st serve and forehand supremacy, until end - Nadal winning.
Nadal bookended his performance by grabbing the upper hand when it mattered at the start and finish, but Novak put him in plenty of uncomfortable positions in set 2, and the beginning of set 3, which should mean the world number one walks away from this final feeling relatively positive.
Early Point Aggression
One of the problems for Djokovic in this matchup on clay in recent years is that his forehand potency, compared to his prime years (2011-2016), isn’t quite in the same league. Whereas Nadal started and finished this match with his main weapon (forehand) large and in charge, Novak had to rely somewhat on his opponent’s game going through a bit of a lull in set 2, some great returning of his own, and some grittier longer point dynamics, to change the momentum.
If we take a quick look at Djokovic’s forehand offence in their last 10 clay matches:
As good as Novak’s backhand is (he hit 12 winners off it today), it doesn’t give him the same easy power on serve + 1’s (the first shot after a player’s serve) and return +1’s as Nadal enjoys with his forehand. Djokovic has to do more work on both serve and return to grab the upper hand.
This was very much apparent in terms of point length performance today:
As you can see Nadal comfortably won the short point battle (as he did in their one sided Roland Garros final last year), they were nearly dead even on medium length points, and Djokovic dominated the longer points. This is part of what makes post-prime Nadal still so great on clay. Even though he’s no longer consistently the boss in those medium-long length, physical rallies that were one of his hallmarks in his teens and twenties, his early point offence on both serve and return, largely thanks to his forehand (with an assist from some good serving in pressure moments today), can still be a huge competitive advantage.
If Novak could work his way into points and start chipping away at Nadal’s backhand he was winning many of the rallies. But Nadal simply did a good enough job of not letting too many of those longer points, and vulnerable patterns, develop when it mattered.
In set one Djokovic had hit his forehand approx 50/50 down the line (into Nadal’s forehand) and cross court (into Nadal’s backhand). But in set 2 and the beginning of set 3 he was hitting 72% of his forehands cross court into Nadal’s backhand corner, pinning him there:
For comparison’s sake here’s what it looks like when Nadal (near end) was able to hit offensive forehands early in the point rather than get locked in longer rallies involving his backhand:
Djokovic returned extremely well for the entire match, finding Nadal’s baseline and rushing Nadal’s second shot often. But Rafa still managed to take the upper hand early on in the points, often enough, with a sufficient number of forehands.
If we split the match into those three sections:
First set (tight set but Nadal winning):
In set 1, Nadal faced pressure moments, 15-30, 30-30 at 3*-4 & 15-30, 30-30 at 4*-5, and managed to erase each Djokovic half-chance with serve+1 forehand winners (and one ace).
Nadal winning 60% of his service points.
2nd set and first few games of set 3 (Djokovic winning):
Nadal winning just 43% of his service points.
This second set and the first few games of set three not only featured Nadal getting to hit his lowest % of forehands as his serve+1 shot of the match, but also his lowest win rate even when he did get to play that forehand. As per hawk-eye via commentary, Nadal was hitting 20cm’s shorter in avg rally length in set two (and early in set 3) compared to set 1. Part of this was down to Nadal’s level dipping a bit, and part of it was down to Djokovic’s great return depth. The forehand +1’s that Nadal were hitting were just that bit harder with Djokovic pinging returns near his baseline, at the start of the third set especially:
Rest of 3rd set (Nadal winning):
Nadal winning 73% of his service points.
Nadal back to hitting forehands more often as his serve+1, and winning more of them.
The match also finished with Djokovic winning just 8/16 (50%) of his first serve points in set 3, his lowest of the match by far (73% and 67% in sets 1 & 2). From that 2-3 game onwards in set 3, when Nadal managed to get a return in play, he’d usually find a big forehand in the next couple of shots in the point.
Micro turning point in set 2, Nadal’s dropshot errors:
Micro Turning Points In Set 3, Djokovic’s Forehand Again
Nadal saved both break points, held serve, and then proceeded to play a miracle return game in Djokovic’s next service game to break. And that was pretty much that.
This match was a nice microcosm for the clay court rivalry of Nadal and Djokovic over the past 5-6 years. Djokovic clearly still has the tools to hurt Nadal and make him uncomfortable on this surface, as we saw in set two and the beginning of set three. And this was certainly the closest Novak has come to upsetting Rafa on clay in the last 5 years (all while having played no less than five hours of tennis the day before!). But a combination of him not quite having the forehand potency he once had, and Nadal’s own forehand being as much of a weapon as ever (especially early in the point), means that matches like this usually rest more squarely on Nadal’s racquet rather than Djokovic’s. If Novak can find a way to either turn that less-than-5-shots statistic around in his favour, or somehow push Nadal into more and more gruelling rallies deep in his backhand corner, then this rivalry may yet see new life on this surface (Novak may even get another chance to solve the puzzle in a few weeks at Roland Garros).
But for now at least, Nadal and his trusty forehand are the ones in control.
See you on Thursday (Federer returns in Geneva this week, draw here)
If you have any questions or thoughts about what you just read you can leave a comment below & I’ll answer it. No question is dumb.
This was the last free issue of Sunday match analysis. If you’d like to keep getting them, you can subscribe below. The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) match analysis piece every Sunday for final’s.
// Looking for more?
Let’s Stop Screwing The Umpires On Clay: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/lets-stop-screwing-the-umpires-on
Madrid Final Analysis - Zverev vs Berrettini: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/madrid-final-analysis-
Analysis of the Tsitsipas vs Rublev Monte Carlo Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/monte-carlo-final-tsitsipas-vs-rublev
Daniil Medvedev Does *Not* Like The Clay - Do Flatter Hitters Have it Harder On Clay? https://theracquet.substack.com/p/daniil-medvedev-does-not-like-the
The Modernisation Of Tennis: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-modernisation-of-tennis
Osaka Wants To Learn To Slide Like The Others: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/osaka-wants-to-learn-to-slide-like
Federer, Nadal & Djoković Rivalry Impact: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/federer-nadal-and-djokovic-make-a
Tennis’ Identity Crisis: The Umpire Problem https://theracquet.substack.com/p/tennis-identity-crisis
Analysis of the Djoković Medvedev Australian Open Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-micro-not-macro-match